Monday, April 23, 2018

Why do choirs stand in sections to learn songs? Here’s an alternative that might work better!

Most choirs rehearse and perform with voice parts standing together in blocks: all the sopranos will be together, all the basses together, etc.


But there are other ways to rehearse (and perform) songs which might make learning easier. Here is something you might want to try.

why do choirs stand in blocks of the same voice part?

There are frequent discussions about how choirs should place the different voice parts.

Some choirs stand in blocks in SATB order. Others split the voices slightly with basses in the middle: SATBTAS. Sometimes choirs will distribute the voice parts evenly throughout the space, i.e. in smaller quartets each containing SATB. And there are plenty of other alternatives (see STAB, TABS or ASSBAT – how does your choir line up?).

Whichever formation your choir ends up with, there is an assumption that when learning and rehearsing new songs, all voices of the same part will stand together in a block.

Only after the song has been learnt will different formation be tried out.

I’ve done this with my own choirs in the past. I might take a song that everyone knows really well and divide the choir up into small SATB quartets and spread them throughout the space. Or we might stand in a circle one person to a part: SATBSATBSATB …

In either case the song usually gets off to a very wobbly start. Individual singers feel very exposed as they’re not surrounded by others singing the same part. They have to rely totally on themselves. They might even get put off by the harmonies either side of them because they’ve never really heard them that clearly before.

Usually, after a little practice, things settle down.

Once people become more confident and comfortable I might even select just a few quartets to sing at the same time, or even narrow it down to one. Singers usually find it a challenge, but definitely get something from the exercise.

Then we go back to standing in block parts again.

an alternative way of learning a song in parts

Recently I decided, as an experiment, to teach a brand new song with the choir divided into quartets or standing in a circle one person to a part. I wondered if learning this way would increase the confidence of individual singers.

The singers were very apprehensive, but it worked really well.

The main effect was that each singer had to pay attention and focus. There was nobody next to them who could support them. They had to learn the part fully by themselves.

Most singers also discovered that standing next to the other harmony parts actually helped them to learn their own part better. The harmonies acted as support and reinforcement.

Once the song had been learnt I tried singling out particular quartets and found that the singers could hold their parts really easily. Gone were the wobbles as they moved from being surrounded by their own part to being on their own.

the advantages of teaching and singing one person to a part

I couldn’t find a single negative to learning songs in this way. It was all positive.

  • singers focus more – nobody else is there to support you or to learn the part on your behalf so you have to concentrate.
  • singers are more confident about their own part – once you’ve learnt a part by yourself without the support of others in your part, you really know it.
  • harmonies don’t put the singers off – it’s easy in traditional choir formations to just be aware of the other parts in the distance. Standing right next to the other harmonies helps you to learn your own part, rather than feeling that they’re there to put you off!
  • there is more focused attention on the song as a whole – especially when standing in a circle, you gain a stronger understanding and feeling for the song as a whole. You can listen more attentively and be aware of how your voice fits into the overall sound.
  • vocal blend comes much more easily – standing right next to other parts makes it much easier to focus on blending your voice with others.
  • the overall sound is richer and more textured – anybody listening from the outside will get a much richer and more textured sound rather than having the basses and sopranos (for example) as completely separate stereo tracks.

any disadvantages?

I have no idea why choirs traditionally stand in block of the same voice part. I’m very happy to be enlightened, but I really can’t see any advantages!

Some people have said that conducting a choir which is divided into smaller quartets is impossible since you won’t be able to bring parts in at different times if necessary. But that’s what rehearsals are for. If the altos come in after everyone else, then you simply gesture to the choir as a whole and the altos know it’s directed at them. Simple!

The only possible downside I found (and this will be worse with very large choruses) is to actually divide your choir up into the smaller quartets. It can be a logistical problem, but once done it should be easy.

The other problem can be when individual choir members are absent as this will upset the balance of quartets more than large sections. It’s not insurmountable though.

I’d love to hear what you think. Have you ever tried teaching or learning a song like this? How was it for you?

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Chris Rowbury



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